By Jessica Brodie
United Methodists from around the world will gather for a special called session of General Conference in 2019 to address issues surrounding the church divide over human sexuality.
Sixteen South Carolina delegates will represent this annual conference at the special session, set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The session was called by the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church with a purpose “limited to receiving and acting on a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward,” announced COB President Bishop Bruce R. Ough in the official call.
The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the COB after General Conference 2016. With a 428-405 vote, GC2016 authorized the COB to defer all 56 petitions on human sexuality and refer the entire subject to the Commission on a Way Forward to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in the UMC Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.
“The Council of Bishops encourages the entire church to continue in deep, unceasing prayer for Holy Spirit breakthroughs for the Commission on a Way Forward and the special session of General Conference,” Ough said.
Dr. Tim McClendon, chair of South Carolina’s 2016 delegation to General Conference, said the fact that General Conference asked the COB to form a commission to help guide the church forward regarding human sexuality is “really unique.” He knows of only two other occasions when this has happened.
“Typically, we have a separation of powers, so this is a rare instance where the Council of Bishops was asked by a slim majority to create a commission they themselves named that has clergy and lay members from various different sides of issues on human sexuality, and the commission is going to report back in time for the Council of Bishops to change it or do whatever they want to with it, and then the Council of Bishops will present the legislation to this special session in 2019,” McClendon said.
McClendon said he has much hope about what will happen at the special session. He believes the church will not split into two factions over the human sexuality issue as some have predicted.
“I think most people hope there’s some sort of resolution so that we can focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ while at the same time valuing everyone so that there indeed might be a way forward; that’s the great hope,” McClendon said. “I don’t doubt the UMC will continue; I think that it will.”
McClendon said he especially hopes the UMC will remain a unified church under a commonly approved Book of Discipline and really think about the ramifications of some proposed ways forward, such as allowing different bodies in the church to make their own decisions about human sexuality.
“It’s hard to be a connectional church if you have a loose connection or some sort of unity that’s not really unity,” McClendon said, likening it to what happens with electrical connections. “I think any time you lose connection in electricity, there’s a loss of power or a short circuit occurs. We are a connectional polity; we do things together. We do ministry together.
“We need to be The United Methodist Church, not the ‘Untied’ Methodist Church.”
Homosexuality ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’
At the root of the human sexuality debate is a host of issues, from whether homosexuality is a sin to whether practicing homosexuals should or should not be allowed to be clergy or bishops.
Currently, the Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (Para. 304.3).
Some view that language (and other similar paragraphs throughout the Discipline) as discriminatory and want to change it to be more inclusive and more in line with what they believe Scripture suggests: that it is not a sin or that homosexual clergy are no different from divorced clergy and, therefore, one should not be barred while the other is permitted.
Others view the language as acceptable and view any change as diluting scriptural authority in favor of caving to the whims of a sometimes-immoral secular society.
South Carolina views divided
Many in South Carolina are just as split over the issue, with some calling for a revision of the Discipline’s language, some calling for it to remain the same and some undecided.
Dr. Les Howard, a lifelong Methodist and a member of Central UMC, Spartanburg, said he thinks the UMC should seriously reconsider its stance on homosexuality—or consider revising its motto of “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
“In my old age I find that the more I learn, the less I really know,” Howard said. “Why our Creator chose to create people differently may forever remain a mystery, but I have concluded a few things: He loves us all equally; Jesus expressed His wish for us all to love one another equally; it is very dangerous to interpret our Holy Bible literally; Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.”
The Rev. Brian Arant, pastor of Main Street UMC, Abbeville, said he does believe the language of the current Discipline is a proper articulation of Christian teaching, though he said the issue of human sexuality and the related debate on gender identity is a huge topic, and we run into danger when we try to turn it into an over-simplified “sound bite.”
“I tend to find myself on the conservative/traditional side of the human sexuality debate because the scriptural narrative seems to tie man/woman sexual unity into the fabric of creation (i.e., the creation liturgy of Genesis is a beautiful image of God creating opposites intended for one another),” Arant said. “So it’s less about arguing specific ‘problem scriptures’ (i.e., Romans 1) and more about the entire direction of the scriptural narrative, which names gender and sexual expression in specific terms.”
At the bottom line, the human sexuality issue is not about sex but about about theology and scriptural authority, McClendon said.
“We’re at an impasse,” McClendon said. “There are those who see the restrictive language as immoral and not loving and not grace-filled, and others think it is grace-filled and upholds what 95 percent of Christians support.”
McClendon said most of Christendom has prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality, and the issue is practice, not orientation—same as with the practices of self-avowed heterosexuals outside of a monogamous marriage.
“But we believe all persons have civil rights and sacred worth,” McClendon said. “I would urge caution and patience and prayer for the Commission on a Way Forward and prayer for the Council of Bishops and the delegations that we do the right thing and that we love each other and work together so we can move forward.”
South Carolina’s 16 delegates to General Conference 2016, led by McClendon, are expected to represent this annual conference at the special session per the UMC Constitution, unless the South Carolina Conference decides to have a new election of delegates. If the conference has a new election, it would need to be done on a one-by-one basis and not as a full slate.